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Dean Ornish, MDa,b,*
Eat food. Mostly plants. Not too much. —Michael Pollan,1 The Omnivore’s Dilemma
There is a growing convergence of scientiﬁc evidence that an optimal diet is mostly plant based, consisting predominantly of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, and soy products. A healthful diet is also low in reﬁned carbohydrates, saturated fat, and trans fats and high in complex carbohydrates with adequate omega-3 fatty acids.2 In this issue, Kottler et al3 review studies indicating that a plant-based diet combined with nuts, soy, and/or ﬁber reduces low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol by an average of 25% to 30%. This is comparable to what can be achieved with statin drugs but without the costs and potential side effects. Last year, almost $20 billion was spent on statin drugs in the United States. At a time when health care reform is at center stage, the potential cost savings of reducing the need for statin drugs by changing diet and lifestyle is of great interest. When most patients are diagnosed with hypercholesterolemia, they are usually advised to follow the dietary guidelines of the American Heart Association or the National Cholesterol Education Program. However, these moderate changes in diet usually result in only modest reductions in LDL cholesterol levels,4 at which point lipid-lowering drugs are usually prescribed. Most patients are not given the option of making more intensive changes in diet and lifestyle such as a plant-based diet, because of the belief that they will not follow them.5 This belief often becomes self-fulﬁlling. “Mr. Jones, your LDL cholesterol level is elevated. I know you wouldn’t follow a plant-based diet or even a modiﬁed plant-based diet, and why would you want to when I can give you a statin drug and that will do it?” So the patient takes the drug, does not change his diet, and the doctor says, “See, I knew he couldn’t change his diet.” The idea that taking a pill is easy and that most patients will adhere whereas changing diet and lifestyle is difﬁcult if not impossible is not supported by most studies. In fact, research shows that up to 60% of patients prescribed lipidlowering drugs are not taking them only 6 months after initiating treatment.6 Why? Because patients are asked to take a pill that does not make them feel better in the hope of preventing something frightening, such as a myocardial infarction or stroke, which most people do not want to think about, so they usually do not. However, when people make comprehensive lifestyle changes, including a plant-based diet (or a modiﬁed planta Preventive Medicine Research Institute, Sausalito, California; and University of California, San Francisco, San Francisco, California. Manuscript received April 20, 2009; revised manuscript received and accepted May 13, 2009. *Corresponding author: Tel: 415-332-2525; fax: 415-332-5730 E-mail address: email@example.com (D. Ornish). b
based diet), they often feel so much better, so quickly, that it reframes the reason for making these changes from fear of dying, which usually is not sustainable, to joy of living, which often is. Evidence suggests that a plant-based diet is beneﬁcial for preventing and treating a variety of chronic diseases. In addition to the effects of a plant-based diet on hypercholesterolemia, these include coronary artery disease, diabetes, hypertension, obesity, prostate cancer, breast cancer, and other conditions. In other words, it is not 1 diet for heart disease, another for diabetes, and another for hypercholesterolemia. A reason that these conditions are often associated is that they often share common diet and lifestyle origins. The National Institutes of Health and AARP study of 500,000 subjects reported that the consumption of red meat was signiﬁcantly associated with increases in total mortality, cardiovascular mortality, and cancer mortality.7 Measures of cardiovascular disease such as ﬂow-mediated vasodilation as well as LDL cholesterol and inﬂammation worsened on a typical Atkins diet but improved signiﬁcantly on a low-fat, whole-foods, plant-based diet.8 What we include in our diet is as important as what we exclude. Plant-based foods contain 100,000 disease-preventing nutrients, such as phytochemicals, bioﬂavonoids, carotenoids, retinols, isoﬂavones, genistein, lycopene, polyphenols, sulforaphanes, and so on.9 They are also low in disease-promoting constituents such as saturated fats, trans fatty acids, dietary cholesterol, and sugar. For example, blueberries contain phytochemicals called anthocyanins that may improve memory. Tomatoes are rich in lycopene, an antioxidant that may help reduce the risk for coronary artery disease, breast cancer, lung cancer, and prostate cancer. Ginger contains a compound called gingerol that may lower blood pressure and increase circulation. Pomegranates are rich in phytochemicals that may help prevent prostate cancer by reducing deoxyribonucleic acid damage and may increase myocardial perfusion in those with ischemic heart disease.10 Kale contains luting, an antioxidant that protects against macular degeneration. Studies are showing that although isolated vitamins may not be beneﬁcial, plant-based foods that contain these vitamins often are protective. For example, -carotene supplements were found to increase the risk for lung cancer in smokers, whereas foods such as carrots that are rich in -carotene were found to lower the risk.11 In our studies, my colleagues and I at the nonproﬁt Preventive Medicine Research Institute, in collaboration with other institutions, found that a plant-based diet (along with moderate exercise, such as walking 30 minutes/day, stress management techniques such as meditation and yoga, and increased social support) was able to stop or reverse the progression of even severe coronary artery disease as measured by exercise thallium scintigraphy,12 radionuclide ventriculography,13 cardiac positron emission tomography,14
0002-9149/09/$ – see front matter © 2009 Published by Elsevier Inc. doi:10.1016/j.amjcard.2009.05.031
The American Journal of Cardiology (www.AJConline.org) 2. Ornish D. The Spectrum. New York: Ballantine, 2008:386. 3. Kottler BM, Ferdowsian HR, Barnard ND. Effects of plant-based diets on plasma lipids. Am J Cardiol 2009;104:947–956. 4. Hunninghake DB, Stein EA, Dujovne CA, Harris WS, Feldman EB, Miller VT, Tobert JA, Laskarzewski PM, Quiter E, Held J, Taylor AM, Hopper S, Leonard SB, Brewer BK. The efﬁcacy of intensive dietary therapy alone or combined with lovastatin in outpatients with hypercholesterolemia. N Engl J Med 1993;328:1213–1219. 5. Ornish D. Statins and the soul of medicine. Am J Cardiol 2002;89: 1286 –1290. 6. Liberopoulos EN, Florentin M, Mikhailidis DP, Elisaf MS. Compliance with lipid-lowering therapy and its impact on cardiovascular morbidity and mortality. Expert Opin Drug Saf 2008;7:717–725. 7. Sinha R, Cross AJ, Graubard BI, Leitzmann MF, Schatzkin A. Meat intake and mortality: a prospective study of over half a million people. Arch Intern Med 2009;169:562–571. 8. Miller M, Beach V, Sorkin JD, Mangano C, Dobmeier C, Novacic D, Rhyne J, Vogel RA. Comparative effects of three popular diets on lipids, endothelial function, and C-reactive protein during weight maintenance. J Am Diet Assoc 2009;109:713–717. 9. Dewell A, Weidner G, Sumner MD, Chi CS, Ornish D. A very low-fat vegan diet increases intake of protective dietary factors and decreases intake of pathogenic dietary factors. J Am Diet Assoc 2008;108:347– 356. 10. Sumner MD, Elliott-Eller M, Weidner G, Daubenmier JJ, Chew MH, Marlin R, Raisin CJ, Ornish D. Effects of pomegranate juice consumption on myocardial perfusion in patients with coronary heart disease. Am J Cardiol 2005;96:810 – 814. 11. Omenn GS, Goodman GE, Thornquist MD, Balmes J, Cullen MR, Glass A, Keogh JP, Meyskens FL, Valanis B, Williams JH, Barnhart S, Hammar S. Effects of a combination of beta carotene and vitamin A on lung cancer and cardiovascular disease. N Engl J Med 1996;334: 1150 –1155. 12. Ornish DM, Gotto AM, Miller RR, Rochelle D, McAllister GK. Effects of a vegetarian diet and selected yoga techniques in the treatment of coronary heart disease. Clin Res 1979;27:720A. 13. Ornish DM, Scherwitz LW, Doody RS, Kesten D, McLanahan SM, Brown SE, DePuey E, Sonnemaker R, Haynes C, Lester J, McAllister GK, Hall RJ, Burdine JA, Gotto AM Jr. Effects of stress management training and dietary changes in treating ischemic heart disease. JAMA 1983;249:54 –59. 14. Gould KL, Ornish D, Scherwitz L, Brown S, Edens RP, Hess MJ, Mullani N, Bolomey L, Dobbs F, Armstrong WT, Merritt T, Ports T, Sparler S, Billings J. Changes in myocardial perfusion abnormalities by positron emission tomography after long-term, intense risk factor modiﬁcation. JAMA 1995;274:894 –901. 15. Ornish DM, Brown SE, Scherwitz LW, Billings JH, Armstrong WT, Ports TA, McLanahan SM, Kirkeeide RL, Brand RJ, Gould KL. Can lifestyle changes reverse coronary heart disease? The Lifestyle Heart Trial. Lancet 1990;336:129 –133. 16. Ornish D, Scherwitz LW, Billings JH, Brown SE, Gould KL, Merritt TA, Sparler S, Armstrong WT, Ports TA, Kirkeeide RL, Hogeboom C, Brand RJ. Intensive lifestyle changes for reversal of coronary heart disease. JAMA 1998;280:2001–2007. 17. Ornish D, Weidner G, Fair WR, Marlin R, Pettengill EB, Raisin CJ, Dunn-Emke S, Crutchﬁeld L, Jacobs FN, Barnard RJ, Aronson WJ, McCormac P, McKnight DJ, Fein JD, Dnistrian AM, Weinstein J, Ngo TH, Mendell NR, Carroll PR. Intensive lifestyle changes may affect the progression of prostate cancer. J Urol 2005;174:1065–1070. 18. Ornish D, Magbanua MJ, Weidner G, Weinberg V, Kemp C, Green C, Mattie MD, Marlin R, Simko J, Shinohara K, Haqq CM, Carroll PR. Changes in prostate gene expression in men undergoing an intensive nutrition and lifestyle intervention. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A 2008; 105:8369 – 8374. 19. Ornish D, Lin J, Daubenmier J, Weidner G, Epel E, Kemp C, Magbanua MJ, Marlin R, Yglecias L, Carroll PR, Blackburn EH. Increased telomerase activity and comprehensive lifestyle changes: a pilot study. Lancet Oncol 2008;9:1048 –1057. 20. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. Livestock’s Long Shadow: Environmental Issues and Options. Available at: http:// www.fao.org/docrep/010/a0701e/a0701e00.HTM. Accessed June 9, 2009.
and quantitative coronary arteriography.15 There was even more improvement after 5 years than after 1 year, and there was a direct correlation between the degree of change in diet and lifestyle and the degree of improvement in percentage diameter stenosis. Also, we found 2.5 times fewer cardiac events.16 We conducted a randomized controlled trial indicating that the progression of early-stage prostate cancer was slowed, stopped, or reversed in patients who followed a plant-based diet and lifestyle intervention.17 We are gaining a greater understanding of some of the genetic mechanisms by which these diet and lifestyle changes are beneﬁcial. For example, we found that this intervention caused beneﬁcial changes in gene expression in 500 genes in only 3 months, upregulating disease-preventing genes and downregulating oncogenes that promote breast cancer and prostate cancer and also downregulating genes that promote inﬂammation and oxidative stress, which often contribute to the cause and progression of coronary artery disease.18 We also found that these lifestyle changes increased telomerase, the enzyme that lengthens telomeres, the ends of our chromosomes that affect longevity.19 Even drugs have not been shown to do this. Also, what’s good for you is also good for our planet. Animal agribusiness generates more greenhouse gases than all transportation combined.20 The livestock sector generates more greenhouse gas emissions as measured in carbon dioxide equivalent than transportation (18% vs 13.5%). Also, it accounts for 9% of the carbon dioxide derived from human-related activities. It generates 65% of the humanrelated nitrous oxide, which has 296 times the global warming potential of carbon dioxide. It is also responsible for 37% of all the human-induced methane, which is 23 times more warming than carbon dioxide. Nitrous oxide and methane mostly come from manure, and 56 billion “food animals” produce a lot of manure each day. Also, livestock now use 30% of the earth’s entire land surface, mostly for permanent pasture but also including 33% of global arable land to produce feed for them. As forests are cleared to create new pastures, it is a major driver of deforestation: some 70% of forests in the Amazon have been turned over to grazing. Finally, eating lower on the food chain is a more efﬁcient way to produce protein. It takes signiﬁcantly more resources to produce meat-based protein than plant-based protein. As the earth’s population continues to increase and resources decrease, choosing to eat more plant-based foods frees up more resources to help feed others. Knowing that the food choices we make each day not only help ourselves and our family but also our planet often brings a sense of meaning; for many people, this is a powerful motivator. Many people tend to think of breakthroughs in medicine as new drugs, lasers, or high-tech surgical procedures. They often have a hard time believing that the simple choices that we make in our lifestyles—what we eat, how we respond to stress, whether or not we smoke cigarettes, how much exercise we get, and the quality of our relationships and social support— can be as powerful as drugs and surgery, but they often are. Sometimes, even better.
1. Pollan M. The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals. New York, New York: Penguin, 1996.
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